The introduction of autonomous vehicles (AV) onto public roads is no longer a distant fantasy. The technology is very much in use in different contexts across the world. However, how it is applied and what it is used for has the potential to create very different futures. In this article, we look at the way on-demand autonomous vehicles could fundamentally revolutionise public transport to provide better services, with lower environmental impacts which optimise value for money.
Indeed, using autonomous vehicles to improve public transport provides a safer, well-regulated framework for allowing driverless vehicles on the public highway. In contrast, concerns about privately owned autonomous vehicles are growing, with questions around their safety, interaction with pedestrians and cyclists and indeed the potential for congestion caused by an increased number of low occupancy vehicles, however ‘smart’ they are.
Increased safety in road traffic
Safety is one of the most important concerns in public transport, and public transport operators have extremely high standards to ensure the safety of passengers and the general public. The testing and use of autonomous vehicles within this framework will promote the safety benefits of autonomous vehicles and enable the development of best practice more rapidly and effectively.
For example, a study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute showed that autonomous vehicles have the potential to prevent up to 92% of accidents caused by human error.
Improved efficiency of public transport
By deploying autonomous vehicles on-demand as part of public transport, traffic flows can be managed more easily and public transport can be matched more closely to demand. A study by the Swedish transport authority Trafikverket found that autonomous buses in the city of Stockholm could reduce traffic by up to 80 per cent by reacting more flexibly to traffic situations and using roads more efficiently. This is supported by a McKinsey Global Institute study which found that autonomous shuttles can reduce private car use by 20 per cent and thus increase road transport capacity.
Autonomous vehicles work well within the electrification of transport, contributing to a reduced impact on the environment from public road passenger transport. Thanks to their intelligent routing, which leads to a reduction in congestion and traffic jams, the emission of harmful pollutants is further reduced. According to a study by the University of California, Berkeley, the use of autonomous vehicles in public transport could reduce emissions by up to 90 percent.
Autonomous vehicles do not require drivers, reducing costs for operators. This is particularly critical for services which are less intensively utilised but still needed to enable people to have access to public transport. According to a study by Boston Consulting Group, the use of autonomous vehicles in local public transport in Europe could save up to 30 percent of operating costs. Another study by the consulting firm Roland Berger shows that self-driving vehicles in local public transport could save up to 50 percent of operating costs by 2030. Whilst drivers may not be required, remote operators may still be needed to oversee the fleet.
Saving time and resources thanks to intelligent routing can also achieve a significant reduction in operating costs. On-demand services that use autonomous vehicles, can calculate exactly how many vehicles should be deployed at what time and how effective utilisation can be achieved, just like all DRT services from Padam Mobility, thanks to intelligent algorithms. This sustainable use of resources is a key factor in cost savings for public transport.
Improved services and inclusion
On-demand autonomous vehicles increase the availability of public mobility services. This is particularly important in remote areas where public transport is scarce. Autonomous vehicles in combination with on-demand services can offer a flexible alternative that is more accessible to many people than traditional public transport. This enables elderly people are no longer mobile, or young people who cannot drive themselves, to participate more in social life.
Autonomous vehicles can also improve mobility for people with reduced mobility. Through the use of barrier-free autonomous vehicles, elderly or mobility-impaired people are able to move around without having to rely on the help of others. On-demand AV services allow them to make more spontaneous decisions, which increases their independence.
Autonomous on-demand services in public transport can play a significant role in optimising spatial usage. By using autonomous vehicles that operate on demand, public transport can be better matched to the actual demand. Unlike traditional public transport, which runs on fixed routes and schedules, autonomous on-demand services can respond flexibly to passenger demands. This can help increase the use of public transport by making it easier and more convenient to get from point A to point B. Ultimately, this can in turn help to reduce the number of private vehicles on the roads, which can lead to a reduction in traffic.
Autonomous on-demand services can therefore help to make public space more attractive, for example by reducing parking space and thus creating more space for pedestrian routes and recreational areas.
Public vs. Private?
The use of autonomous vehicles for public transport has the potential to help make public transport safer, more efficient, more environmentally friendly, more cost-effective and more inclusive.
However, the introduction of autonomous technology has provoked debate and raised concerns. There is a particular fear that the technology is not mature enough and that technical errors and accidents may occur. This seems to be very much the case where automotive manufacturers are racing to be first to market with consumer products to capture the mass market. However, in a public transport context, the industry has a gold standard approach prioritising safety and enabling scrutiny within open regulatory frameworks. Indeed the safety culture of the rail and airline industry provides assurances that cannot be matched for people driving their own vehicles.
Likewise, the nature of driverless vehicles are likely to benefit transport operators who are reporting that is has become very difficult to recruit new bus drivers. It has become quite common that trips have to be cancelled due to a lack of staff. In areas that have problems finding staff, autonomous vehicles can be a remedy. This makes the technology an important tool in providing reliable and cost-effective mobility services that users can fully trust.
The transition to mainly autonomous driving in local public transport certainly brings hurdles and major challenges. However, the aspects of road safety and environmental protection are almost impossible to ignore. Only attractive public transport that is accessible and available will encourage people to switch to shared transport. On-demand autonomous vehicles, unlike human-driven vehicles, have the key advantages that can help public transport become the most popular means of mobility in the long term.
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